When my kids were in elementary school we spent one week each summer at a camp in the Western Adirondaks. It was a small piece of property on the banks of one the many lakes with cabins or campsites that you can rent. The groups renting the cabins would all share the lakefront beach, picnic tables, dock and a huge stone fire pit area. My favorite part of the week was when everyone would gather around the fire each night. Early in the week, we were just introducing ourselves but by the end of the week, we were old friends. Each year, the same families would rent their favorite cabins but there would always be one or two new families to meet. It was a tradition that I grew to love and look forward to each year.
There was a rhythm to life on the lake. The families would do their own thing during the day – hiking, swimming, fishing, kayaking. Then after dinner, one of the men would wander over to the stacked firewood and start to split some logs. Someone else would gather up smaller twigs and they would start to stack the wood in the fire pit. Soon they would have a fire going. One by one folks would start to come out of their cabins and gather ‘round the fire. Some would bring marshmallows, some would bring graham crackers and chocolate. Before you knew it, everyone in the camp was pulling up a chair to toast marshmallows and trade stories of their day.
That’s the way campfires are. People are drawn to them. It would be dark around the lake at night so the only light came from the fire. It would get cold as soon as the sun went down. As the night wore on, you would see other fires start up around the lake and you could hear people talking and laughing at their own campsites. We would gather closer to our fire and talk into the night.
As soon as the fire was lit, people were drawn to it. It was a light in a dark place. It provided warmth on a chilly night. Not only were people drawn to it, but everyone was welcome there. No one was ever turned away from the campfire. You might think that we were all young families so we had a lot in common, but that’s not really true. When I think of the cabins and who stayed in them there was a lot of diversity. Our family was young, middle class, and there was another family about the same age. They had three athletic boys, a large boat and loved to go sailing and hiking every day. The next cabin held grandparents with their adult daughter and young grandson who was an only child. Next to them was a middle-aged couple with grown kids. The father played golf every day and their kids came up and each spent a few days as their job schedules allowed. These were families with very different dynamics than mine. There were also two elderly nuns who rented the smallest cabin on the lot. They were very sweet and would only came to the fire early in the evening so they didn’t bother the “young folks”. We’d beg them to stay and talk with us and sometimes they would for a bit. We would also have first time visiting families. One year we had a family of older parents and a young foster child with some severe social issues. I know they felt awkward but everyone did their best to make them welcome. The next year another family with a single child came. The first day I invited them to the campfire but only the wife and child came down. She explained that her husband was watching a ball game on TV. Same thing the next night. The third night the husband came to the fire and we realized what was going on. He had been drinking quite a bit. The wife was embarrassed and expected those of us around the fire to exclude them but she was surprised when we all welcomed him and then kept right on talking and roasting marshmallows. That’s how campfires work – even groups of people who are very different will bond together and feel welcome. Even people with problems that may make them difficult to be around are welcome.
That’s how God is – He is a light that everyone is drawn to and finds a warm welcome. God doesn’t turn anyone away. The church, as a reflection of a loving God should be the same way – drawing people in and making them welcome. But sadly, because we are just human, we don’t always do a good job with that. Though we aim to be inclusive, churches often become exclusive. It’s human nature to want to gather with those who will look, talk and think as you do. A healthy church body is one that allows God to raise them above their own human nature and lift them into a Godly nature that can become a welcoming campfire. A campfire that those outside the sanctuary doors can see and be drawn to. All those different types of families will make for a messy mix. But a messy mix united by God is beautiful to see and even more beautiful to be enfolded into.
Without oxen the stable stays clean, but you need a strong ox for a large harvest.
A life that is lived will get messy. People will mess up but God doesn’t. Our campfires may sputter out but God’s is always burning bright. That is why we can always find a welcome with God. You always belong and fit in with God. Even when you mess up, when do something wrong, you belong. The wife of the alcoholic was expecting a cold shoulder from those of us around the campfire. She was a bit confused when we still welcomed her family even after knowing her secret. It’s an amazing moment when you finally realize that no matter how “good” you try to be, you will mess up at some point and your secrets will slip out. Maybe it’s something little, maybe something pretty big, but we all make some bad choices at some point. We all sin. No one is so good that they can say that they haven’t sinned today. But this doesn’t scare God. He is not put off by our bad choices. He is not going to shut you out because you did something wrong. He will always love and welcome you. He will expect you to repent and help you change that behavior, but he won’t push you away. You are always welcome with God.
Everyday someone is hiding from God because they feel they won’t fit in or that they have messed things up so badly that they wouldn’t be welcome. Maybe you know someone like that. Maybe you are someone like that. I know I’ve been there and will, at times, still find myself slipping back into that line of thinking. Human nature is tough to beat. But I keep looking for the campfire that shines in the darkness. It’s not a perfect fire. The logs may have splinters that draw blood and may still be a bit green. Sometimes there is more smoke than fire. Yet, if it’s a campfire belonging to God, there will be warmth and light beyond our limited capabilities. And no one will be turned away from that campfire. Not even me.
God is light: in Him there is no darkness at all.
1 John 1:5b